Breakfast For Two with Barbara Stanwyck

Well, if Valentine Ransome isn’t the best name for a woman then I don’t know what is. It just sounds good, really. Of course we can go into things like, she’s a woman who holds her own and don’t take no flack from men, holding Valentine ransom and all that, but why bother? Tip my hat to the scriptwriter who thought of that name.

It’s 1937, and this is not my favourite Barbara Stanwyck film of that year, I could state that before the plot was even five minutes in. But she’s got cheek in it, and I like that about the film, even if it’s only a few glimpses of it we get from her. They are rather sustained glimpses, after all. (Not that that’s really a thing. “Scenes” is probably more appropriate.) First, she pokes her head out of a shower to her male accomplices unexpecting house master, and exerts her presence in his home as deserved, welcome. She owns the scene — and when another woman enters, Babs is shocked, but keeps on the upper, striding out without losing any glamour or respect.

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In the following scene, she tells her two uncles, “Well, it was my last night in New York and I did a little pub crawling.” (The fuddy duddy elders query each other: “Pub crawling?” — “Making the rounds of the night spots.”) She loves her life, loves what she does, knows how to make friends and influence people, and has fun while she’s at it. Her uncles care for her, but she has no problem leaving them for a plan of her own fancy. She’s in love, and she must outsmart her man to get him — he’s not good enough to see it. He’s too stubbornly tied to archaic tradition to let her into his life. She pushes those boundaries, as Babs does so well, and so determinedly, in so many of her films, particularly in this decade. She doesn’t take his bigoted fear, his premature decisions, as they are shouted at her. She knows that, whether they are meant or not, they are based on nothing at all. There is a blinded institution that thinks women are dumb but she ain’t. And Babs was always fighting for this to be put out there, to beat down those walls.

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Standing up to the man she loves, who at this point does not respect her, she tilts her chin, flares her eyelids, purses her lips. The man she loves, Herbert Marshall (although not really because he’s way too haughty and boring and we’ll not talk of him any longer), rears in disgust at her expressing human feeling, and accuses, “It’s war you want and you’re going to get it…You’re the type of woman who wants to wear the pants?! All right, mister, wear them! Trip over them, and break your neck!” In Babs great spirit, she’s just happy. She loves him, and she has his attention. As much as I’d like to say that, at a certain stage in relationships, things are more complicated than this, there is a small window where respectful treatment takes a back seat to mere attention. In the courting game, we take wins where they come.

So of course, Marshall’s treatment of and opinion of Babs as an incorrigible woman, out of place in wanting her own wants, pisses me off no end. It’s disgusting, from this day. But it’s disgusting to Babs too. The thing is, she doesn’t outright try to change him, but she loves and wants him despite of his horrid opinion of women, and self-righteous admiration of his self-acknowledged unskilled self. This is bad. This doesn’t help anyone. Let’s pretend she’s going to marry him first, and then change him. Okay, it’s been done (right?).

Another joke situation creates itself, and Babs scorns at Marshall, “You need your clothes in order to look like a man!” Because, of course, he’s a womanly coward and no good at “business etc”. She’s winning. He tries to show her by arrogantly assuming he can beat her at boxing, but she gives him and his butler black eyes. Don’t mess with her, obvs.

I was all expecting this narrative to go in the general way of these gender-role-challenging almost-slapsticks of the 1930s, to lead to the eventual coupling of this resistant would-be couple, romantic harmony, and a reinstatement of gender roles. On the way, Marshall’s early female accomplice gets fed up and asks him to marry her, to which he agreed, and gender roles are stretched to a wider margin. He does that, but later, when Babs talks about some smart business stuff (as if I know!), he criticises her “feminine whim”. He’ll let a woman dictate his personal life, but not the business that he can’t. He’s an idiot, and yet he still considered his Y chromosome better equipped to rule a company than an independently intelligent woman.

This ain’t new. We gals ain’t surprised. I love the films of the 1930s and earlier because they do tend to challenge this strictness. Many of them reinstate the “norm”. Throw the women away again. Rarely do they do what Breakfast For Two does. And who on earth knows what Breakfast For Two does? Seriously? First she wants to marry him but he despises her, then inexplicably, he suddenly turns and falls in love with her, but she wants nothing of it. They run around the house for a good few minutes in one of the “screwball” sequences that falls flat, then all of a sudden get married in a public square. Go figure.

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Not much was solved in this film, but a lot was challenged. There’s a good deal of film theory and sociological stuff that counts the resolution in films, and takes into account all gendered characters and positions given the final result or rendering. I dislike such an approach. Look at the way Barbara Stanwyck acts in this. The way she holds herself, treats herself, makes sure she stands up apart from the males, always. She looks them in the eye, she doesn’t shy away, she demands, she satisfies. In the screen shot in the middle of this post, she’s sitting in an office chair, semi-reclining, the man whose company she just bought standing above her and framed from above. Yet she is clearly in control. She is given roles where she manoeuvres her life, and the man she loves, to become his wife. The fact that in so many films the independence and intelligence of a woman is all directed towards getting a man is complicated and not the ideal, but it shows a woman doing what she wants.

In Breakfast For Two, Marshall continually criticises Babs for being independent, for taking control, for not obeying his idea of “a woman’s place”. She doesn’t back down. I’m still completely baffled by the ending, but I can’t imagine that she’d let him walk all over her in marriage. Clearly, here, it’s the men who need reforming, and women are showing them the way.

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About cinemelo

I love to write about film and comment on culture. Hopefully providing insight and interesting thoughts for fellow cultural itinerants.
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